No Sweat, Yoga Poses aren’t Copyrightable

Yoga is “a system of exercises for attaining bodily or mental control and well-being.” When he was four years old, Bikram Choudhury studied yoga in Calcutta, India. In 1971, when he was twenty-five years old, he introduced yoga to Beverly Hills. In 1979, Choudhury published Bikram’s Beginning Yoga Class, a book including descriptions, designs, and photographs of how to perform his now-famous, ninety minute sequence of twenty-six hatha yoga postures and two breathing exercises in a studio kept at 104°F (to mimic the Indian climate). Choudhury always emphasized, “If you follow my instruction and do my yoga postures Sequence to the best of your ability, you will live a better, healthier and more peaceful life.” By 1994, he started the “Bikram Yoga Teacher Training Course,” and in 2011 sued two of his former students for starting a yoga studio featuring “hot yoga,” which includes twenty-six postures and two breathing exercises done for ninety minutes in a 105°F room.

Feel the ommmm

Bikram Yoga Poses – Courtesy of Alli Simpson

The Opinion

On October 8, 2015, Judge Otis D. Wright II, of the Central District of California, ruled that, despite its “graceful flow,” Choudhury’s yoga sequence is an unprotectable idea that is not copyrightable. Section 102(a) of the Copyright Act expressly excludes ideas, procedures, processes, systems, methods of operation, concepts, principles, or discoveries from copyright protection and codifies the idea/expression dichotomy. The idea/express dichotomy separates an idea from the expression of an idea. Essentially, the idea/expression dichotomy is the principle that although an idea itself is not protectable by copyright, the expression of that idea is. Further, if an idea and its expression are “inextricably intertwined,” such that there is only one conceivable way or a severely limited number of ways to express the idea in a work, then the work may be subject to the merger doctrine. Under the merger doctrine, an idea and its expression “merge,” rendering both uncopyrightable. Even though such a work has expressive elements, the idea is predominant for copyright purposes. Thus, every idea, theory, and fact in a copyrighted work becomes instantly available for public exploitation at the moment of publication.

Judge Wright clarified that although Choudhury’s copyright in his book was valid, that copyright did not extend to the Sequence described therein. Because both the book and Choudhury’s classes emphasize the Sequence’s healing and curative effects on the body, and how “it is designed to scientifically warm and stretch muscles,” the Court found that the Sequence is a “healing art.” The Court defined a healing art as “a system designed to yield physical benefits and a sense of well-being,” precluded from copyright protection. As an example, the court described a medical textbook describing how to perform a surgery. Just as the series of movements the surgeon makes is not copyrightable, neither is Choudhury’s yoga sequence.

Although the guiding consideration of the idea/expression dichotomy is to preserve the balance between competition and the protection reflected in patent and copyright laws, the Court clarified that preventing others from performing the Sequence after teaching it in the book would frustrate the public and make no sense. By Choudhury’s reasoning, following the book in doing the sequence would be an infringement, in and of itself. The court also specified that the Sequence could not be copyrightable as a compilation because, although the individual components of a compilation need not be copyrightable, the compilation itself still must be an “original work of authorship.” And as shown above, the entirety of the Sequence is an unprotectable idea. The Court said that extending copyright over the Sequence as a compilation would be like extending copyright over cheesecake because the recipe is a compilation, either way, it’s an unconstitutional monopoly. The sum of the whole, in this case, is not more than its individual parts, and as the Sequence fails the originality requirement of § 102(b), it cannot be copyrightable.

Lastly, the Court did not find that the Sequence was a choreographic work subject to copyright. Although choreography is not specifically defined in the Copyright Act, the U.S. Copyright Office defines choreographic works as “a static and kinetic succession of bodily movements in certain rhythmic and spatial relationships and in relation to time and space.” Furthermore, it is “the composition and arrangement of a related series of dance movements and patterns organized into a coherent whole,” although it is “not [merely] synonymous with dance,” (emphasis added). In fact, the legislative history of the Copyright Act states that “’choreographic works’ do not include social dance steps and simple routines.” Although the Court declined to specifically adopt any definition of “choreographic works,” it reiterated that because the Sequence does not overcome the § 102(b) originality requirement, it cannot be copyrightable.

Art or Yoga? You decide.

Courtesy of minima & moralia –

Can Yoga be a Choreographic Work?

Even if the Court adopted the Copyright Office’s definition, yoga sequences still seem unlikely to be copyrightable. Although they are certainly (1) static and kinetic bodily movements in certain rhythmic and spatial relationships performed in relation to time and space, they are (2) not a related series of dance movements and patterns that are organized into a coherent whole. So, yoga sequences seem to fail on one key front, they are not dance movements. Despite the skill and grace required in the practice of yoga, at its core, yoga poses are stretches designed to improve the human body and mind, with an emphasis on health. Copyrighting yoga sequences would be like copyrighting pushup routines, the result is a chilling effect on competition and unconstitutional monopolies. Choudhury is probably going to have to meditate and do some breathing exercises to get over this one, and this author has one thing to say about it: namaste.


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